Dan Boyle: Wrecks And Ruins


From top: Vernon Mount House in Cork was destroyed by fire on July 25, 2016; Dan Boyle

It is nothing like the same context, importance or cultural significance. As Notre Dame was burning I thought of the many of the abandoned husks we have in Ireland.

Stretching as far as back to Norman keeps, and more recently in history to the score of torched stately homes, ruins of buildings seem to have become an entrenched part of the Irish landscape.

In Cork we have a number of recent examples. The fires at Our Lady’s Hospital in 2017 and a year previously at Vernon Mount, have deprived the region of two buildings of significance each poised on either side of the city, defining its outer limits.

Both have since been left discarded. Those who should be thinking about what to do being frightened about the cost of restoration, or lacking any viable plan as to how the renovated buildings could be used.

I particularly pine for Vernon Mount, a huge part of the landscape of my growing up.

The extent of its deterioration, within a very short time span, has been very much a thing of pity. It has been reduced to little more than frontage. In reality it needs to rebuilt from scratch.

Many would argue what would be the point. Many would say that there are far more important uses for public money, especially at a time of housing crisis.

And yet I believe a case can be made. There is an onus to protect elements of architectural heritage from various eras of an area’s history. In Ireland we have been too quick, too often, to demolish rather than add to.

Cork’s Georgian architectural history has virtually disappeared. Restoring Vernon Mount would be a continuing exemplar of what Cork once looked like.

Even if this argument were to persuade there is a still a question as to what a restored building could be used for. Again, I believe it is only imagination that prevents an answer to this question. It could be a community facility, a cultural centre or an innovative social housing project.

Vernon Mount has a story to tell. Cork’s Hellfire Club, its most renowned resident the infamous Sir Henry Browne Hayes, abducted a wealthy heiress here to inveigle her into an illegal marriage as cunning plan to deal with his mounting debts.

Other voices will say let what was be, but I have been here before. One of the more disappointing campaigns I had been involved with, when previously a city councillor, was to argue an alternative use for the former Greenmount industrial school.

An austere, imposing building, it carried with it a tragic history. I had succeeded in persuading the Presentation Brothers (then managers of the school) to mark the names of young men who had died at the school having been sent there, but who had been buried in an unmarked grave.

The order subsequently sold the building to a private developer. What followed was an all too familiar story of loose security, encouraged anti social activity, and when that was not enough, the strategic removal of the roof. This was all part of a wearing down process to encourage a community’s disinterest under which potential would never defeat the folk memory of history.

Another lost building changes the history of nothing. The ruins of many past structures do little to enhance the landscape. What is sorely lacking is a policy on what we should do.

Some ruins need removing. Some buildings need restoring, repurposing. What we need are criteria that help us define why and how.

Top pic: Tara Higgins

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15 thoughts on “Dan Boyle: Wrecks And Ruins

  1. dav

    The present government would be looking at vulture funds to swoop in and rebuild those derelict buildings

    1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

      I know that the OPW groans when someone bequests them their fancy falling-down mansion in their will.

      1. deluded

        There was a heavy tax on fancy houses and they were neglected (that and the fact you cannot keep families in your attic anymore to do the cleaning and what not)
        Once damp and rot sets in it’s an awful job to recover them.

  2. Dan Boyle

    There are a number of OPWs – Public Buildings, Heritage Buildings, Environmental management. Some things it does well, some things very badly (flood protection schemes). It badly needs to be restructured.

  3. Spaghetti Hoop

    The building is a shell, and it doesn’t look to be a profitable enterprise which could recoup the monies the Council would need to spend on a CPO and refurbishment. I would be a proponent of conserving as much of our built heritage as possible, but this structure has tipped too far into the ‘destroyed’ percentage for it to be redeemable heritage. You have the vandals to thank for that.

  4. eoin

    Does Dan have any views on the removal of height restrictions in Dublin last year which directly led to a developer getting planning permission for Ireland’s tallest building, an office block on Tara Street. Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan spoke about it yesterday in the Dail, her contribution was thickly packed with facts which were interesting, to say the least.

    “I wish to raise the implications of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government’s decision to increase building heights in Dublin. This decision was made without any regard to the setting, the impact on land values or any sense of home or quality of life. What it has done is open a space for developers whose Celtic tiger excesses and irresponsibility had drastic consequences in many areas, including housing. The permission was given because this door was opened to an application for a 22-storey tower on Tara Street from Tanat Limited, which is controlled by property developer Johnny Ronan. This application had already been rejected by Dublin City Council planners because its scale and bulk would be significantly detrimental to the architecture and conservation of the area from Trinity College along the Liffey to the Customs House and into O’Connell Street.

    Under freedom of information, I receive copies of letters between developers and Ministers for Housing, Planning and Local Government. Apart from the praise and considerable redactions, one quote stood out. This stated that height limits are compromising Dublin’s ability to respond to the housing crisis. I would ask what this 22-storey tower will do for housing. The answer is nothing. I want to turn to the docklands. Quotes relating to the docklands stated that restrictions are preventing delivery of appropriate residential densities in Dublin docklands and constitute a significant impediment to increasing housing supply there.

    To date, the current height had been adhered to because of the SDZ, which is a legally binding contract between the local authority, the developer and the community. Developers are now lobbying and pressurising Dublin City Council to review the SDZ but only on height, which is the door the Minister has opened. If there is a review, the other aspects of an SDZ should be part of the review. They include aspects like plot ratio, sustainable living, social audit, benefit to community, quality of life, social mix and infrastructure. The review of the height is supposedly for housing but in reality, it is for high-rise offices, commercial space, hotels, aparthotels and some student accommodation with the housing all being buy-to-lets that will not be on sale on the open market. There is zero scope for public servants and people on average wages to afford to live in the area never mind the local community. There is such hypocrisy, that is, that this is supposed to be for housing. During the previous building boom in the docklands, 36 social homes were built. There will be no social homes with these plans. The social element is gone. It has gone to Rialto and along the M50.

    Well-established communities in the docklands area of North Wall are being ignored and treated with contempt. They are overshadowed and are now facing a 22-storey office block that is practically in their back gardens. What is happening involves giving away control of an important part of the city – North Lotts and South Lotts – to developers. Do we never learn? We will be left with uninspiring glass cages and no communities, houses or homes. Where is a real, creative and sustainable vision for Dublin with people at its core, not profiteering egotistical developers with abysmal track records when it comes to quality of life for communities and ordinary people?”

    1. Dan Boyle

      Can’t say I’m too up on the issue. I’m in favour of going higher. 4 to 6 stories in already built up areas. 10 stories in green field sites.

  5. Optimus Grime

    The old Court House in Castleblayney used to house a library and a number of small court rooms and has now been left vacant and in some decay. Local people went to government for funding to restore it ,as the county council who own it refused to do so, and were told by Minister Madigan that sufficient funds were not available and that the town should look elsewhere for money. Now where exactly do you look? Oh yeah developers and vulture funds! Thanks Fine Gael!! Look at the An Tasice Buildings At Risk listing and it would make you despair


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